Birthday Girl

Bella arrived late at the party, carrying a doll in a box in pink wrapping paper. She’d owned the doll when she was young, and she’d hoped Natalie would like that. Now, she wished she’d bought something.

Her sister’s husband answered the door while holding a bunch of balloons. He looked surprised.

Sorry I’m late, Bella said.

We weren’t sure you’d come. Cheerfully, he added, We hoped you would.

Bella resented both his surprise and his cheer, as if the last year hadn’t happened. I said I would.

We weren’t sure. He patted her shoulder. It’s good to see you. I’ll put your gift on the table.

Lavender and fuschia streamers swagged the living room. They read Happy Birthday, Natalie! and You’re Seven! Girls giggled, and twirled in dresses with tulle skirts. Natalie twirled with them. Parents clustered by the walls, watching. The children paid no attention to the adults.

Bella’s sister kissed her on both cheeks. You came! Natalie will be glad to see you. She always asks for Aunt Bella. She looked at Bella appraisingly. Has it really been a whole year?

The affection was uncomfortable after their estrangement, but Bella just stood and let it happen. Her sister was the one who’d banned her from the house and from seeing Natalie, and she had total control over whether Bella would continue to be allowed back. Bella knew better than to risk an argument.

Bella’s sister offered to get Natalie, but Bella didn’t want to interrupt. She found a corner, sat, and watched. Natalie’s body had stretched in the last year. Her face was leaner in every dimension, even her flushed cheeks. Bella recognized the look from her own childhood pictures.

Natalie was teaching the other girls how to do ballet positions. She squealed with delight when a small girl with springy brown curls managed to do an approximation of fifth. Bella watched how happy Natalie was, feeling both grateful for it and also like she was intruding. It was good to know that Natalie was all right. Maybe she was better off without Bella there. Maybe Bella’s sister had been right. Maybe she should leave.

Bella’s sister gave Bella a plastic cup of punch. She left it on the table.

As the afternoon turned hot, the party migrated outdoors to the pool. Lacy dresses were exchanged for neon swimsuits and water wings. The little girls’ arms were like waterfalls, droplets cascading as they jumped in and out of the water.

When Natalie’s blonde hair started to green, the girls and their parents assembled for presents and cake. Slices of frosted strawberry cake arrived on plastic plates. Natalie’s father started the birthday song, and the girls pitched in with squealing voices.

The gift table sat under a palm tree. Bella’s paper faded among metallics and ribbons. She should have known it would.

Natalie shredded the first gift’s iridescent wrapping with a gleeful screech.

Don’t get so excited you drop something, said Natalie’s father.

Natalie was riled up from the long day, the sugar, and the anticipation. Frosting smudged her cheeks. She jumped around with increasing intensity as she ripped into more presents.

Careful, said Bella’s sister’s husband.

You need to calm down now, said Bella’s sister, or you’re going to have to take a break until you can be more appropriate.

Natalie’s face pinked and then flushed crimson. She screamed, I hate you! I hate you! You want me to die! You’ve always hated me! She gulped air. Her neck twitched. Her voice went deep. Shit shit shit shit! Shit! Her fists beat the table. Bella’s gift tumbled, pink against the grass, before being covered by other presents. Natalie’s father leaned in to catch a falling box, and a punch landed in his ribs.

Bella wanted to go to her, but held herself back. Bella’s sister and her husband might not want her interfering. Still, Bella’s stomach ached, watching Natalie twitch, and she had to exert effort to stay where she was.

Shh, shh, murmured Natalie’s father as he took his daughter gently by the shoulders. It’ll be all right. He carried her just out of sight to privacy behind the house. Bella’s sister told everyone to be patient; they would be back in a second.

Is Natalie okay? asked a girl in blue.

She’ll be fine in a minute, said Bella’s sister. T. J. is really good at helping her relax.

The girl asked, Because of how she’s sick?

Bella’s sister’s practiced reply came quickly. She’s not exactly sick. Some people have different challenges. She stopped for a moment, glanced at Bella, and then glanced away again. After a beat, she added, Like some people are good at the cello, and for other people it’s hard. Natalie is good at some things, but she has trouble with other ones.

What’s a cello? asked the girl.

A musical instrument, said her father. Why don’t you help Natalie’s mother pick up the presents?

An intense expression pinched Bella’s sister’s face as she piled boxes onto the table. Drying hair frizzed around the still-wet maternal bob clinging to her neck. During the past year, her crows’ feet had burrowed more deeply. The tiny girl beside her chuckled and tried to balance a gift on her head.

Bella’s breath hitched. She was afraid to open her mouth in case she started crying.

She’d been very good at the cello.

Natalie returned triumphantly on her father’s shoulders. Her eyes were still reddened from crying, but her smile was bright, and her father had fixed the curls around her face. He exclaimed, Here’s the birthday girl!

A few people applauded. The parents marshalled their children’s attention. Bella’s sister turned to them with an expression of relief. All right, everyone! Let’s get this started again.

Bella slipped away. She managed to keep the tears in until she’d retreated to the side yard. They poured out of her. She held her ragged breath, and they went away. She let herself breathe in, and they came back.

She sat alone while the shadows lengthened. The air chilled. She wiped her face over and over on her dress.

Sometime later, the noises of the party faded. A while after that, Natalie found her. She stood a few feet away in wilting skirts, regarding Bella. She yawned and rubbed her eye. Aunt Bella?

Yes, Bella said.

Natalie moved a step closer. Why are you crying?

Oh… Bella blotted her eyes.

Mom said I should ask.

Oh. Bella stopped blotting.

Natalie’s skirt shushed as she came nearer. But why?

Oh. Oh.

Natalie disturbed the dirt as she sat. She laid her head on Bella’s lap, and stared upward with eyes that were pinwheels of grey and blue.

Bella’s lip trembled as she looked down. Things were different when I grew up. That’s all.

Is it about you being my egg mama?

Is that what your mom said?

She said you gave the egg because she didn’t have any eggs.

Bella nodded.

Natalie’s face suddenly pinched in anger. But then why haven’t you been here!

The question rose into a cry of frustration.

Bella’s voice stuck in her throat, trapped behind tears. She had to release a few of the tears to continue. When she was done, she said, Your mom didn’t want me around for a while.

Why!

Does your mom want me to tell you this?

Natalie squirmed in Bella’s lap. I want to know!

Oh. Bella bit her tongue, and searched for words. It was when you got sick.

I’m not sick. I have different challenges.

Right. They used to call it sick when I was growing up.

Natalie settled again. Her head made a warm and comforting weight in Bella’s lap. Bella’s fingers drifted to Natalie’s hair, and she began to stroke it.

I’m sick and your mother’s not, Bella said. When you got sick, your mom got mad at me. She said I gave it to you.

Natalie toyed with the bows on her collar. She enunciated carefully. Your challenges are bipolar and Tourette’s, too?

Early-onset bipolar. Not quite as young as you, Bella said. I don’t have Tourette’s, though. I used to have an anxiety disorder that made me too scared to talk. They called it selective mutism.

You can talk now, Natalie said.

Yes.

You conquered your challenges.

Some of them.

Natalie whined her vowels. So whyyy are you cryyying?

Bella sighed. Her nose remained congested. She blotted her eyes again, but it just made a mess. You should go inside and find your mother.

Mom told me to find you.

Bella nodded restlessly. Right. To ask why I was crying. Her head ached. The tears had made her voice cracked and rough. People thought about this stuff differently when I was growing up. If I had a meltdown—

She cut herself off. It felt strange, how sometimes talking about her past forced instant tears, when at other times she could speak matter-of-factly, even joke about it.

She stared down at Natalie’s peach-soft skin and clear trusting eyes. Natalie stared back. She reached up to touch Bella’s earrings.

What’s a meltdown? Natalie asked.

Like what happened to you today. If I—

Bella’s memory rang with the echo of a locking institutional door. Her throat hurt. She tried again.

Our parents didn’t know what was wrong with me, so they—

She remembered her mother’s sobbing rants about how she should have had an abortion, and stopped again.

They used to call it being sick. They didn’t want to change things for you. They wanted you to get better so you’d stop needing anything. If you weren’t going to get better, a lot of people didn’t want you at all. Even if you were a kid, you could end up being sent to places that were almost prisons. Or to real prisons. That’s against the law now. They have to pay for kids to get treatment at home. And the treatments are better, too. They don’t just…

She stopped again. She remembered nurses making jokes about ice picks. Natalie didn’t need to know that.

She continued more quietly, When you don’t talk, people don’t really see you. They think you’re like a chair or a lamp…

Her eyes glazed. She shook away the memories that wanted to come, delayed them for later.

She squeezed Natalie’s hand. I’m so happy you have the things you do, Bella said. Just, sometimes I wonder what I would have been like if I’d had some of them, too.

Natalie’s thin blonde brows tilted inward over sad eyes. Bella wasn’t sure how much she’d understood. She said, I wish you’d had things when you were growing up.

Bella teared up again. I’m so sorry.

It’s okay, said Natalie.

I’m so sorry, Bella repeated. She started sobbing again, and this time she didn’t try to choke it off. She talked through the garbled tears. I’m so sorry I made you sick.

She held Natalie close in her arms as if she were still an infant, rocking her back and forth, and repeating, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Natalie clung to her, pushing her head against Bella’s chest and making the noises her father had made to her when she was melting down. Shh, shh, shh.

Bella became aware of the passing time as chill air blew across her arms. Tears ebbed. She nudged Natalie off her lap and stood, and then took the child’s hand as they crossed back toward the house.

Bella wasn’t surprised to see her sister standing at the corner where the side yard met the lawn. They nodded at each other.

Natalie swung Bella’s hand. I asked why she was crying.

Did she tell you? Bella’s sister asked, looking at Bella.

She had the wrong things growing up, Natalie said. She also has challenges with bipolar and Tourette’s.

Just bipolar, said Bella.

The women stared at each other. Bella’s sister wore a hard year’s worry on her face. Scattered grey striped her hair.

Bella’s sister spoke to Natalie without looking away. Hey, hon. Why don’t you go inside and ask Dad to help you get into your pajamas?

Natalie drew a big breath, and looked like she might fight. She blew it out again, and rubbed her eye. She asked Bella, Will you be here when I’m changed?

Bella’s sister raised her brows in question. Bella nodded.

All right, Bella said.

Natalie ran toward the house. Bella and her sister stood awhile in silence, toeing the dirt. Her sister crossed her arms over her chest. She kept trying to smile, but awkwardness wiped it from her face.

Bella’s sister spoke first. You didn’t make her sick.

Bella snapped back. You’re the one who said I did.

Her sister looked down in embarrassment, and then raised her head again so she could meet Bella’s eyes. I was wrong.

Bella shrugged, conceding nothing.

It’s been so long, her sister said. I don’t even know what you’re doing these days.

Whose fault is that? Bella blurted. She bit back her anger. I’m living in the same place. The bookstore lets me work odd hours. Disability’s keeping me afloat. She paused. I got a cat.

Bella’s sister nodded without really engaging, thinking about something else. She swept the hair out of her face. She said, I wonder about it sometimes, too.

About what?

What it would have been like if things had been different when we were children. You might have been a cellist.

Bella shrugged again. I am what I am.

You should see what they can do for Natalie now. When she has an episode at school, no one panics. The SSDA sent an educator in at the beginning of the year, to explain things, neurodiversity, to everyone, the students and the teachers. Her sister approached a step. She spoke with slow delineation as if she was holding each syllable in her mouth to perfect it. I never thought you were a lamp.

Thanks, Bella muttered, but she kept listening.

Her sister continued, I always cried when they sent you away. You were my big sister. I didn’t care whether you talked. She assayed a familiar smile. Remember the first time you sat down with my cello?

Sort of, said Bella. Maybe not the first.

You were so good. You just sat down. I never got any better at all. Do you still have it?

No.

Bella…

After a beat of hesitation, she reached to clasp Bella’s shoulder. Bella did nothing. The touch lasted a few unrequited seconds before she withdrew her hand.

What do you want from me, Bella?

Nothing, Bella said. You’re the one who sent me away. You’re the one who invited me back. You decide everything, so do what you want.

You shoved me. What was I supposed to do?

You pushed me into a corner. You were yelling in my face. You wouldn’t let me out.

Afterward, my head was bleeding.

Jenny. You told me the combination to your gun safe. You told me to do the world a favor.

I—There was—I don’t—Bella’s sister stumbled back a step as if being hit again. Her fingers moved to the long-healed wound. I don’t remember exactly—everything, that day, it’s a blur. T.J. saw the blood, and—

Why did you even ask for my egg, Jenny? You could have picked someone outside the family. You knew if I was the mother she could have it.

Not like that! She tried to kill herself! She was six! I didn’t know how— I went blank for a while. My brain wasn’t anywhere. When you find your six-year-old throwing herself off the roof because you told her it was dangerous to fall from up there—How could I have expected that? You weren’t like that.

You don’t know that. You don’t know what I did in the institutions.

Bella’s sister stopped arguing. Her hands stilled midair. You never said…

Bella shook her head. I didn’t. Not until I was older than that.

Bella’s sister’s hands drifted slowly to her sides. The tension in her eyes faded into pleading. Bella, I don’t know how to explain. I thought I understood what it was like for you before, but I didn’t. I didn’t understand anything until Natalie fell. Not a damn thing. It’s taken me a year to get here.

She held out her hand again, not touching Bella this time, just letting her fingers brush the space between them.

I understand more now, I think. I hope.

Bella regarded her sister’s short fingers with their close-cut nails for gardening. A scattering of healed scratches inscribed white lines on the backs of her hands. Bella’s own hands felt raw and chapped from too much soap and hot weather.

She remembered the hands they’d had as children, peach-soft and plump.

You don’t have to accept my apology, her sister said, but please, come in and say goodnight to Natalie?

Bella nodded, and took her sister’s hand. They walked together in Natalie’s footprints across the lawn to the back door.

(Editors’ Note: Rachel Swirsky is interviewed by Sandra Odell in this issue.)

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop where she, a California native, learned about both writing and snow. Last year, she traded the snow for the rain of Portland, Oregon, where she roams happily under overcast skies with the hipsters. Her fiction has appeared in venues including Tor.com, Asimov’s Magazine, and The Year’s Best Non-Required Reading. She’s published two collections: Through the Drowsy Dark (Aqueduct Press) and How the World Became Quiet (Subterranean Press). Her fiction has been nominated for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award, and twice won the Nebula.

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